Rebuilding A Relationship That's Hit Rock Bottom

A mother sat in my office the other day, telling me about her preadolescent son. He was surly, she said, and when he spoke to her it was with a great deal of eye rolling and nasty comments. He refused to pick up his clothes, and his simple chores of taking out the trash and setting the table were never done properly. Even when she approached him to ask a question about something he wanted - such as when he would like to leave for soccer practice, he would snap at her, they'd invariably get into an argument, and he'd wind up saying something like "Never mind, I don't want to go anyway, you're impossible." As Mom talked, it was evident that not only was she at her wits end with her son, but also that their relationship was at rock bottom.

Stephen R. Covey, in his book "The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Families" has a wonderful analogy about the parent-child relationship. He says that between parent and child there is something he calls an "Emotional Bank Account." When we interact with our children it either makes a deposit into our emotional bank account with them, or it makes a withdrawal from that account.

As I listened to the mother of the preadolescent son, I could tell that she was trying to make withdrawals from an empty account. She was lecturing her son about neatness and responsibility, she was attempting to discipline him when he failed to do a chore, she was nagging him, "losing it" and yelling at him constantly. Her opinion of him was negative - and it was clear that her judgmental attitude came through in her communication with him. All of these things take a little bit out of our relationship with our kids. Other things make withdrawals as well -- the crises and emergencies that impact our families from time to time, as well as our efforts to steer our children in the right direction through teaching them. Normally, a parent's relationship with their child is strong enough to handle these things, because it is balanced in some way with the deposits we've put into the account. Deposits are made when we convey to our children that we trust them and when we show them respect, even if their opinions differ from ours. When we spend time together as a family, and make an effort to have one-on-one time with each of our children we're also making deposits. Positive physical contact, encouragement of a child's gifts, talents and efforts, laughing with them and having fun together are other relationship builders. When we show them that we are willing to listen to them and take them seriously without interrupting, sharing our opinion or judging them we're also making deposits into our emotional bank account with them so that we can also carry out the parental "duties" of giving them chores, disciplining and teaching them. In order for the relationship to function in a healthy way, there must be enough "deposits" so that we can make withdrawals when it's necessary. Otherwise, it becomes as fruitless as trying to get water from a dry well.

In order to get a relationship that's "gone dry" back to a healthy state, the parent must first begin to fill up the well. Often, this goes against a parent's instincts at the moment because the parent has become as angry as the child. However, unless the adult begins this process, the child cannot be expected to change. I encourage parents to start by making written deposits into the relationship. When we express ourselves verbally to an angry child they're likely to tune us out. Parental "love notes" left on a child's pillow at night or on their dresser for them to find in the morning do a lot towards repairing a broken relationship. Words like "I love you," or "I'm sorry our relationship is suffering a bit right now, I love you anyway" are extremely helpful. Ignoring your child's sarcastic comments about the notes is also important. Your child is simply testing you to see if you mean what you say about loving them - and if your emotional bank account has run dry then this is not a test you can afford to fail by snapping back at them! Other ways to make deposits might include taking your child out to lunch or dinner by themselves, remembering to keep criticism out of the conversation, and just to listen (if your child is even willing to talk to you). Besides making deposits like these, however, the parent must also cut down on the number of withdrawals she's making. Otherwise it's like trying to use an eye dropper to fill up a forty gallon barrel. Try writing down a list of things that are making withdrawals from your relationship with your child that you can let go of. The mother of the preadolescent son, for example, decided that it didn't matter how he set the table, only that he set it. She made a promise to herself not to nag him about his clothes being all over the floor. Rather than yell at him about making his bed, she simply shut the door of his room so she wouldn't have to look at it.

An excellent guideline to follow if you find that the emotional bank account with your child is running low, is to ask yourself before you interact with your child: Will what I'm about to say or do build this relationship or will it make a withdrawal? Often we say well-meaning things to our children out of worry or concern - like "Did you get all of your homework done?" or "How come you're not going to the school dance?" - not realizing that for a relationship with an empty bank account even these seemingly benign remarks are withdrawals.